SAS founder Jack Byrne’s life is the stuff of legend.
Rachel Hurst finds out how the incredible life of a Preston soldier is being brought to life by a Tory peer.
Throughout a glittering military career Preston-born Jack Byrne was shot in the face, bayoneted in the groin and performed a daring escape from a Second World War PoW camp before putting his experiences to use as one of the founding members of the SAS.
Now, Sgt Byrne’s remarkable story has been told in a new book by Tory peer Lord Michael Ashcroft, celebrating some of the greatest military heroes in British history.
Speaking about Sgt Byrne in his book, ‘Special Ops Heroes’, Lord Ashcroft says: “Byrne took part in the D-Day invasion, landing on Queen section of Sword Beach, incidentally exactly where my father, Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft, landed on D-Day with the South Lancashire Regiment.
“Along with his fellow Commandos, Byrne was tasked with infiltrating through enemy defensive positions in the landing area and linking up with the 6th Airborne Division, which was being dropped in darkness to secure bridges over a river and canal.
“He advanced to the beach and then to a partly demolished building with two comrades, one of who was shot dead.”
In his own memoirs, Sgt Byrne re-told up the story, saying: “Whilst I was off guard, two of the dead Germans in the trench behind me decided to come to life.
“Corporal Todd, reacting like lightning, ran up and, firing from the hip with his rifle at point- blank range, shot one dead.
“At the same time Private Croal, who was almost facing me, unable to aim because I was in his line of fire, lunged forward with the utmost violence and, shouldering me aside, bayoneted the second German in the upper part of the throat, impaling him on a wooden stake in the back of the trench.
“The point of the bayonet entered the neck just above the chinstrap and came out at the side of the face through the cheek in front of the ear.
“When Private Croal tried to jerk the bayonet free, the enemy soldier’s helmet fell forward and, with the chinstrap fouling the end of the rifle, swung beneath it.
“The German, far from dead and still holding a Schmeisser sub-machine gun, tried to grip the bayonet but somehow got one hand entangled inside his own helmet.
“Shouting ‘Wait!’, I tossed my tommy-gun to Corporal Todd, then, drawing my fighting knife, bent down and with one swift movement slit the German’s throat, his warm blood spurting into my face, up my sleeves and over my trousers. Cutting the helmet free, I struck the wooden stake with the flat of my boot, causing the bayonet to come away easily.”
In 2010, eight medals belonging to Sgt Byrne, including the Distinguished Conduct Medal that he was awarded in October 1943 for his bravery during the Second World War, were sold at auction for £72,000.
Born in Preston in April 1921, he moved to India in his early days because his father James Byrne was stationed there with the Army.
After his parents split, he lived at the St Vincent’s orphanage, Fulwood, for around five years until he was 14. The orphanage site is now Corpus Christi RC High School.
He then won a scholarship to the Army Apprentices College, Chepstow, where his military career began.
In March 1942, he was shot in the face at close range by a German officer after spending five days behind enemy lines wandering in the Libyan desert.
But the bullet only brushed his cheek and nose and he was captured and sent to the Stalag Luft III camp that is now in present day Poland.
Just a year later he escaped while in transit to another camp by crawling through a drain and hiding on a Sweden-bound ship to rejoin the war effort.
He enlisted with Six Commando and took part in D-Day before sustaining a knee injury.
As soon as he recovered, he joined the Battle of the Bulge, in Belgium, as the Allies pushed into German territory.
And after the war he served as a policeman during the Malayan Emergency where he was shot in the stomach by a terrorist in 1953 and again survived.
He married in 1955 and he and his wife, Mary Hayes, went on to have three daughters.
He retired from the prison service in Kenya in 1958 before settling in Shropshire, where he built up a drapery business that he ran until his retirement in 1986.
Sgt Byrne died on January 10, 2007, aged 85.
Special Ops Heroes by Michael Ashcroft is published by Headline. For more information on the new book, visit: www.specialopsheroes.com .
For more information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit: www.lordashcroft.com . Follow him on Twitter @LordAshcroft